I'm all for any attempt to save some of summer's bounty for later. A few years ago, I invested in a second freezer so that I could freeze multiple quarts of tomato sauce and gallon bags of blueberries for consumption in the dead of a New England winter, a reminder that summer would, eventually, return, and in the meantime, I could eat something that might take me away from snow and ice, at least momentarily and in my mind (and stomach).
But there are some dishes that shouldn't be saved for later. I'm not talking about things you can't save for later--the salad with the perfect garden tomato, the steamed ear of corn. But dishes or combos that reflect the essence of a season, and even if they could be recreated later, it just wouldn't be the same. I'd put my beloved peach-blueberry crumble in this category along with Deborah Madison's eggplant and summer vegetable gratin, from her great cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
I could write an ode to Deborah Madison--as a long-time vegetarian, I'm so grateful for her cookbooks. But I could write an ode to her just on the basis of this one recipe. Even though I've had the book for years, I somehow missed this recipe until last year. Once I made it, I became this recipe's biggest fan. On the one hand, I'm frustrated not to have had this in my late summer food repertoire for longer, but it also makes me want to make up for lost time and make it as often as possible in these weeks of late summer. It's not a hard recipe at all, and though it's slightly time-consuming, it's totally worth it.
Basically, you bake some eggplant, make a little fresh tomato sauce (I put a summer squash in it this time, since I'd snagged one from the garden before it had reached baseball bat proportions), then layer them together in a gratin dish. Bake for 45 minutes, then add a layer of bread crumbs and parmesan cheese, and bake for another 25 minutes. And voila. A dish that is the essence of late summer in its rich vegetable goodness. I made a huge panful on Monday and have been eating it greedily ever since. I told Alex he could have some tonight, but now I'm regretting that invitation, just a little bit.
So, my recommendation for the upcoming long weekend is this. If you have a garden, gather as many of the vegetables as you have (or beg them off friends with gardens, who are almost always happy to share). Otherwise, head to the farmers market and find them there. You'll need eggplants, red peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil and a squash, if you feel like it. Get some good bread to go with it (good to make the breadcrumbs with, plus good for wiping up bits of vegetables from your plate). Set aside a little chunk of time in the kitchen for the chopping. (You can bake the eggplant at the same time as you're cooking the sauce, and once everything is put together, you mostly just have to be around to take it out of the oven and put it back in again.) Invite someone to share, or save it all for yourself. And once you've tasted it, I'm pretty sure you'll also be contemplating how many more times you can make it before fall finally, irrevocably, arrives.
2 to 2 ½ lbs. globe eggplant, preferably on the small side
salt and pepper
2 large onions, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large bell pepper, finely diced
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
10 large basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 425˚ F. Slice the eggplant into rounds about ½ inch thick – if it’s in season, there’s no need to salt them. Brush both sides of each piece with oil and bake on a sheet pan until browned and tender on both sides, about 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Reduce heat to 325˚ F.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a wide skillet, add the onions and garlic, and cook over medium heat until limp, about 8 minutes. Raise the heat a little, add the pepper and tomatoes, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and thickened to a jam, about 20 minutes. Raise the temperature at the end to reduce the juices. Add the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Lightly oil a 2 ½ quart gratin dish. Make a layer of eggplant in the bottom and spread a third of the tomato-onion mixture over it, followed by another layer of eggplant, half the remaining sauce, then the rest of the eggplant. End with the remaining sauce on top. Cover the dish and bake for 45 minutes.
Toss the bread crumbs with olive oil to moisten and add the grated cheese. Remove the cover, add the bread crumbs and cheese, raise the oven temperature to 375˚ F, and bake until the crumbs are nicely browned and crisp on top, about 25 minutes.
Note: I have no idea how Deborah Madison gets 3 layers of eggplant out of 2 smallish eggplants, especially since you can't slice them too thinly. I've never gotten more than 2 layers, ever, though maybe it's because my pan is too big. This last time, I actually used 4 tomatoes, plus the zucchini, and had just enough sauce to cover my 2 layers. So, some flexibility is possible, and I'd definitely rather have too much sauce than not enough.